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Commentary : McEnroe: Beginning of End?

December 08, 1985|BOB GREENE | Associated Press

A tumultuous year has ended in chaos for John McEnroe, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of a brilliant tennis career.

It came to a halt at the Australian Open, the final 1985 Grand Slam event, where things got off to a sour start for McEnroe and ended with his quarterfinal loss to a relatively unknown player.

The tempestuous New Yorker had verbal confrontations with a referee and run-ins with the press even before the tournament began two weeks ago. Last Wednesday, he lost to hard-serving Slobodan Zivojinovich of Yugoslavia, ranked 66th in the world.

"You're going to pay for this. I mean it," McEnroe shouted at his conqueror after their grass-court battle in Melbourne ended. He then stormed off the court amid boos from 10,000 people.

Later, McEnroe, usually gracious in both victory and defeat, drew an automatic fine for skipping the mandatory post-match interview.

In all, he piled up $3,750 in fines Down Under, not a particularly large sum for a player who has won more than $1 million this year. But it put him over the 12-month limit of $7,500 and gave him an automatic 42-day suspension. If he refrains from all play, including exhibitions, the suspension will be cut to 21 days.

Not only did the defeat, 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, 6-0, deny McEnroe a chance to win a tournament he has never won, it also meant he would finish the year without a Grand Slam victory and with no chance of overtaking Ivan Lendl's No. 1 ranking.

Not the best way to break for the holidays, especially for a player many believe to be among the game's best. But no real surprise.

In the past two years, McEnroe has repeatedly talked about the pressures that prompted Bjorn Borg to walk away from tennis at the age of 26 -- McEnroe's age now. And he has talked more and more about the pressures he is feeling, particularly that the microscopic view of his personal life is unfair.

McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner, refused to bring his fiancee Tatum O'Neal to Wimbledon this year, saying he didn't want to put her through the intense probing of the media.

O'Neal accompanied McEnroe to Australia and, of course, things soon turned into a three-ring circus. One photographer, wanting pictures of the trendy couple, claims McEnroe pushed him over a chair in a hotel lobby. Another photographer said the tennis star spat on him.

Officials at the Men's International Professional Tennis Council office in New York said their investigation showed that there was no physical contact in the hotel lobby, and that the photographer, backing away from McEnroe, fell over the chair without being touched.

McEnroe repeatedly has mentioned the tranquility O'Neal has brought into his life. That tranquility, however, has not translated into success on the courts.

This year, McEnroe fell to eventual winner Mats Wilander of Sweden in the semifinals of the French Open; lost to eventual runner-up Kevin Curren in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon; and was crushed by Czechoslovakia's Ivan Lendl in the title match at the U.S. Open--the other Grand Slam tournaments.

In all, McEnroe won eight tournaments in 1985: Philadelphia, Houston, Milan, Chicago, Atlanta, Stratton Mountain, Montreal and Stockholm.

But the big ones have eluded him and his on-court struggles have been accompanied by seemingly irrational outbursts of temper.

During his match with Zivojinovich, McEnroe demanded that referee Peter Bellenger settle a dispute. But when the tournament director arrived on the scene, McEnroe turned on him.

"He told me to get off the court and asked me what I was doing there," Bellenger said.

Has the pressure become too much for McEnroe? Will he join Borg on the sidelines? Only time will tell.

But the signs are there, and McEnroe himself has said: "I understand now why Borg did what he did."

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